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A Burning Desire for Two Careers

October 15, 2018
Ken Wakwe

For Ken Wakwe, starting the physician assistant program wasn't enough. So he became a firefighter, too.

By John Shaw

Like a lot of students in the Master of Physician Assistant Studies program, Ken Wakwe hadn’t slept much during his first year, what with taking a full course load and then studying for hours at night and on weekends.

But unlike his classmates, the Arkansas native spent much of his first year at MGH Institute of Health Professions in another program—the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy.

He was admitted to the firefighter program a week before he was scheduled to start at the MGH Institute last May, certainly not the best of timing. But he had discovered a passion for the work of firefighters during the three years he worked as an EMT in Boston. So, when the opportunity presented itself, he jumped at it.

“I’m a PA through and through, and I’m excited about that as a career,” says Wakwe. “But I’m the kind of person who, once my mind is set on something, I’m going to do it. I thought this could be a great opportunity to fulfill both of my dreams.”

His schedule was hectic. After finishing classes at 5 p.m., he’d jump into his car and head off to West Newbury on the North Shore, his 70 pounds of equipment stored in his trunk, to spend several more hours in class. Upon returning home to see his wife, Sabine Jean-Louis (who’s a student in the Institute’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program) and their two-year-old son, he’d hit the PA books for a few hours before getting ready to do it all over again.

It came as a surprise to both classmates and the faculty that he had been living a dual educational life for the past several months. “It took up a lot of my time, but I wanted to keep it under the radar,” he says with a grin. “As long as I kept up with my studies at the Institute, I figured I’d be okay.”

And he was. His grades have been stellar, and now he plans to integrate his new skills as he readies to begin his clerkships during the second and final year of the PA program. “As a firefighter, you have to be systematic and have a sense of urgency but in a controlled way, and those are things I can use as a physician assistant,” he explains. “It certainly will help me work with patients better.”

While Wakwe practiced fighting fires under controlled circumstances at the firefighter academy, he’s yet to be called to a real blaze. He’s worked a few weekend shifts as an on-call member of the Lynnfield Fire Department, responding to vehicle accidents and other relatively more routine events near where he lives. But it’s inevitable that one day he’ll have to negotiate a house fire while lugging heavy equipment through dense smoke and raging flames.

“I’m sure I’ll be nervous the first time, but I had great training,” he says. “I’ll be ready for it.”